Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Book Review: The Lady of the Rivers by Philippa Gregory

The Lady of the Rivers (The Cousin's War #3)

Written by: Philippa Gregory

Published: 2011

Synopsis: Jacquetta, daughter of the Count of Luxembourg and kinswoman to half the royalty of Europe, was married to the great Englishman John, Duke of Bedford, uncle to Henry VI. Widowed at the age of 19, she took the extraordinary risk of marrying a gentleman of her household for love, and then carved out a new life for herself. (via Goodreads)

*mild spoilers below, but really, it's based on a historical event so this shouldn't be news to you*


“Any woman who dares to make her own destiny will always put herself in danger.”

I don't tend to read it too often, but I really do love historical fiction. There's something about reading a fictionalised account of a family or event from long ago which just ticks a lot of boxes for me. The Lady of the Rivers is actually the third in Philippa Gregory's Cousin's War series, but it's a prequel that takes place during the years prior to and during Henry VI rule. It focuses on Jacquetta, a real life fascinating woman, who began her life in English-occupied France, the daughter and niece of Luxembourg royalty (and a Goddess), before marrying one of the most powerful men in England, John of Lancaster.

Jacquetta is a perfect character for this type of book because while she's involved in a lot of the critical events that led up to the Cousin's war, she's removed enough that the book isn't just another rehash of a very famous family feud. Instead we see life on the outskirts, how her first husband ruled France and how he tried to guide his young nephew, the king. We see the early days of Henry's rule and the follies of youth as he and his young wife play favourites in court and have zero understanding of how to run a castle, let alone a country. And we get a little insight into raising a child (or 14 as is the case with Jacquetta) during these tough and troubled times, especially as a lady of the court who is forced to spend months away from their children. This peripheral view, I imagine since I haven't read the following two books, also helps to set the scene quite well for the really character-driven narrative that is to come*.

One of the best things about this book was how focused it was on women in this era. Through Jacquetta and the women in her life, we see how few options they had. And not only did they have far fewer options in life compared to men, but their futures were largely out of their control. If they were from wealthy families like Jacquetta, their marriages were often to form alliances or to solve land feuds. Jaquetta's first marriage to John of Lancaster is never consumated, instead she is an object for him to use. Jacquetta, as their family myth says, is gifted with the "sight" because their oldest ancestor was the water goddess Melusina. John, obsessed with alchemy, wants Jacquetta to see the future in a mirror and help him guide his nephew to success and prosperity. And while her talents puts her in his favour, as the reader sees with Jacquetta's brief interaction with Joan of Arc and another woman of the English court, this favour can quickly turn sour when it no longer works in someone's favour. A talent at forecasting the future or making herbal remedies quickly becomes signs of witchcraft and can lead to an unfortunate end tied to a stake. In a less supernatural sense, a woman failing to give her husband a child and heir just as quickly turns from favour. It was a time where women were balancing on a tightwire, hoping to keep their husband, their father, their brother, and their King happy.

In spite of this, Jacquetta, and several other women in the book, are shown to be independent and strong characters. They make themselves heard and they make their own choices, even though they face dire consequences. After John's death, Jacquetta marries his squire and almost loses everything in the process. But her marriage is one of love, and not only do they survive, they rise high in the court. Henry's wife and Queen, Margaret, is ruled by her emotions and is a passionate and fiery woman. Many of her decisions could have risked her her crown and her head, but she lives as she pleases regardless. Joan of Arc, although only in the book for a short while, is an absolutely beautiful and principled girl. Her trial and death is utterly heartbreaking, and the weight of it effects Jacquetta long after it happens. The women are the focus of this book, so we see a lot less of the wars and fighting than many books that deal with this era typically show. This I am eternally grateful for because, ugh, I don't need more battle scenes in my life. I get enough of them in Game of Thrones thank you very much.

Now this isn't to say this book is perfect. It falls into many of the holes historical fiction struggle to deal with. There is an insane overuse of titles in the book. Every time John is mentioned, it is "John of Lancaster, first Duke of Bedford". While I know it's hard to keep on top of all the characters, especially since they all seem to be called John, Richard, Edward and Henry, but when you have a 10 page chapter that only involves a discussion between Jacquetta and her husband, I think the reader can be trusted to understand which John this is. It also struggles at times with covering so much. I loved that it gave glimpses into life in court, away from court, during pregnancy, during birth, during war etc etc, but this did mean that sometimes things were fairly shallow in their depiction. A few times Jacquetta brings up her pregnancy and then gives birth 200 words later and then you don't hear of the child for another 40 pages. A tightening of the focus, just a bit, may have helped here. Building on this...I hated Margaret. She was an insipid and obnoxious brat who plunged two countries into ruin because she wanted to play favourites at court and didn't have a proper grasp of money or time. Because the book is so focused towards the women in the narrative, all of the blame ends up heaped on her shoulders, probably unfairly, while Henry is barely discussed or depicted as a pious and naive young man. Because Jacquetta is one of her ladies in waiting, we spend so much time with her, especially as the country falls into war between the two factions of the family. I didn't like spending so much time with her scheming, although I guess there wasn't a lot else that could be depicted since we were following Jacquetta. But to further infuriate me, the book depicts Margaret as this horrendous woman but then Jacquetta will dote on her or excuses her terrible actions. I couldn't get a read on how Jacquetta truly felt. When she talks about a shallow or dangerous decision made by Henry and Margaret, is she simply being nice because it's her job to be loyal, or does she truly not understand/care how terrible that decision was? Jacquetta was shown to be so intelligent before this part of her life, and suddenly I couldn't tell if she was playing it safe or naive or foolish or simply blind. At the end of the book I was firmly on the York side, which I don't think was Gregory's intention.

Problems aside, I did really enjoy reading this book. I spent most of my first day up the Coast with Tom with this book in one hand, and my phone in the other googling names so I could work out everyone's relationship. English family trees give me such a headache! I loved that this book introduced me to a new badass woman in history. Because Jacquetta most definitely was a badass. This book sadly doesn't cover the later years of her life, but she ends up accused of witchcraft (hence the supernatural elements threaded through this book) and manages to escape with her life. And as a mother of 14** it's really beautiful to see how much she fought for her kids and for them to have the best in life. Other accounts of Jacquetta that I've read since tend to depict her as this grabby power-hungry woman who used her children to rise up in station, and maybe she truly was the 15th century version of Kris Kardashian but I much prefer this version. She fought for and risked everything for all of the people in her life, even those like Margaret who perhaps didn't deserve her love and loyalty. Melusina would have been proud.

*Like I said in the intro, this is actually the third in the series and a prequel, but from what I've read about the other two books it does sound like they are more tightly written in terms of focus. 

**I really should fact check this, it's either 12 or 14, but I've already sent the book back to the library and I'm LAZY.


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